Anglicans in the diocese are hungry for spiritual renewal.
That’s the top finding coming out of Cast the Net’s extensive consultations with clergy and laity.
Cast the Net, the diocese’s visioning and strategy process, takes its name and inspiration from John 21. Since last September, more than 500 clergy and laity have been asked to reflect on the scriptural passage and consider what similarities they saw between the situation the disciples found themselves in while out fishing after the resurrection and encountering the Risen Christ, and the situation they now find themselves after almost three years of pandemic.
The key question posed to both groups was, what might it mean for each of us, in our various ministries in the diocese, to cast our nets on the right (or other) side of the boat? For the lay consultations, participants were also asked to imagine that it was five years in the future and there was a feeling of new life and energy in their church and the diocese. They were asked, how did your church try a different approach that resulted in new life? What new or different things did you focus on that brought energy and drew you closer to the life of Christ? What did you need to let go of to allow new things to happen?
The Cast the Net steering committee has drawn up a list of the most common responses, with the top one being spiritual renewal, comprising spiritual development and formation, preaching the gospel, evangelism, discipleship and following Jesus.
“We have heard from clergy and laity a desire to get back to the basics of Christian believing,” says the Very Rev. Peter Elliott, one of Cast the Net’s coordinators, along with Dr. Anita Gittens and Canon Ian Alexander. “Over and over again, we’ve heard that we need to be centred in the gospel, we need to be rooted in the story of our faith, we need to be re-energized by it and its meaning in our lives. Not that it has been lost, but I think there was so much busyness that went on just getting through the days of shutdown during the pandemic, and it went on for so long, that there needs to be some time for renewal of our faith.”
The desire for spiritual renewal is so strong and widespread that Cast the Net’s steering committee, which includes Bishop Andrew Asbil, plans to bring a proposal to Synod Council in May in response to it. The steering committee decided to act on it now rather than waiting for the final report that goes to Synod in November.
“Our process from the very beginning has been to not wait until the final report is issued to start doing things,” says Canon Alexander. “This particular theme is so strong that we think we need to act on it now, so we’re developing a proposal that would take us past Synod and into some kind of pan-diocesan initiative in 2024.”
The committee is working on ideas and the proposal will be communicated to the diocese after the meeting of Synod Council in May, he said.
In addition to spiritual renewal, other high-priority responses from the consultations included attracting younger people, building up congregations and coping with decline, connecting with the broader community, greater cooperation among parishes and other denominations, addressing clergy wellness and volunteer burnout, dismantling racism and colonialism, and focusing on social and economic justice and homelessness.
Participants also articulated their hopes for the diocese. These included: being Christ-centred, loving and in a prayerful relationship with God; being bold and innovative; being less institutional, secular and bureaucratic; speaking to people where they are today; being more inclusive; having better communication and collaboration; and less emphasis on attendance and revenue as measures of success.
Despite the trials and tribulations of the pandemic, which saw churches shuttered for several months and restrictions imposed on gatherings, clergy and laity expressed a strong degree of hope.
Dr. Gittens says people are moving from grieving the loss of parishioners who didn’t return to church when they reopened to accepting the current situation. “People are starting to accept that this is the new norm and are asking, how are we going to move forward and what can we do? I’ve heard discipleship and evangelism mentioned a lot. Some have said that they don’t feel that they have the skills to share their faith with their neighbour, and that they need to learn how to do that.”
Canon Alexander says people are at different stages of emerging and recovering from the pandemic. “Some parishes that we’ve spoken to have actually found that the pandemic has been transformative in a positive way for them, and that while some regular church members haven’t come back, new folks have come in. So there is a certain level of emergence going on in some places and a turn towards hopefulness.”
Participants also expressed pleasure at working together, he says. “When we put people together from different parishes, at the end of the conversation we saw comments such as, ‘so good to hear that other people are going through similar things,’ and, ‘great to pick up on what others are doing.’ That is very much what this project is all about – getting the diocese to talk to itself and, as Bishop Andrew says, sing together again.”
While the clergy and lay consultations ended at the end of March, the committee planned to hold additional consultations in April and May with other groups, including young families, chaplains, Indigenous ministries, youth and children’s ministries, the Anglican Church Women and people who do not have the ability to meet online.
The committee has enlisted the help of Dr. Sarah Johnson, the Anglican Studies professor at St. Paul’s University in Ottawa, who will analyze the data and identify some of the key themes and minority voices from all the consultations. Her findings, together with those of the committee, will help the committee begin to form recommendations that will come to Synod in November.
On behalf of the steering committee, Dr. Gittens, Dean Elliott and Canon Alexander thanked all those who took part in the consultations and those who facilitated them and provided administrative support, in particular Janet Marshall and Elizabeth McCaffrey of the diocese’s Congregational Development department, members of the Diocesan Volunteer Corps, Amanda Lowry of the Bishop’s Office, Melissa Doidge of the Stewardship Development and Congregational Development departments, and Ajith Philip of the Administration and Property Support department.